Rare gifts: NOMA adds collection of contemporary African American art

Quinnie Pettway, (1943–2010), “Bricklayer” variation quilt, 1975, 83 x 74 in., © Estate of Quinnie Pettway, Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

(Reprinted from The New Orleans Advocate, July 5, 2017 | Original story appears here)

by John D’Addario | Special to The Advocate 

One of the best art collections of its kind is about to get even stronger.

The New Orleans Museum of Art announced this week that it has acquired 10 works of art by African American artists from the South via the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Founded in 2010, the Atlanta-based foundation is dedicated to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting the work of contemporary African American artists from the American South, according to its website. (Its name comes from a poem by Langston Hughes, which ends with the words “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”)

The NOMA acquisition includes works by Thornton Dial, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, and Mary Proctor. Also included are five quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated community recognized for the high artistic quality of its quilts since the 19th century.

All of the art has been drawn from the Foundation’s extensive collection of work by more than 160 artists, which also includes pieces by Lonnie Holley, Purvis Young, Mary T. Smith, and Joe Light, in addition to the artists whose work NOMA will be acquiring.

The works will find themselves in good company at NOMA, which has built up one of the most impressive collections of work by African American artists in the country.

That collection has a long history. NOMA was the first museum to give Clementine Hunter her first major show in 1955, and a series of exhibitions over the past few decades has helped establish the reputations of several other important self-taught artists in the years since.

For NOMA director Susan Taylor, the acquisition is very much a case of adding strength to strength.

“This acquisition builds upon the museum’s enduring commitment to championing emerging and underrepresented voices in American art, and marks the second time NOMA has had the opportunity to collaborate with the Sounds Grown Deep Foundation,” said Taylor in a statement announcing the acquisition.

Previously, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation gave a piece by Dial commemorating Hurricane Katrina to the museum. And the exhibition, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, which was organized by the foundation and opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was exhibited at NOMA in 2012.

Dial, who died in 2016, is represented by two works in the current NOMA acquisition.

While the Souls Grown Deep Foundation has organized traveling exhibitions of work by Dial and the Gee’s Bend quilters over the years, the NOMA acquisition is part of a gradual process by which the foundation will be placing the majority of works in its collection into those of major American and international museums via a “gift/purchase program.”

Half of the works will enter NOMA’s collection via purchases by the museum, while the other half will be gifts from the foundation. The museum declined to say how much the acquisition is worth.

The works acquired by NOMA will become part of its permanent collection, and as such visitors will be able to see them incorporated into future installations at the museum. A NOMA representative said that there were no plans to exhibit the 10 works together in a dedicated exhibition.

NOMA will join institutions including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as the latest participant in the program, which Souls Grown Deep Foundation president Maxwell L. Anderson says is part of the foundation’s mission “to collaborate with museums across the country” and “reshape the narrative of contemporary American art.”

“NOMA has long played a pivotal role in highlighting this work,” said Anderson, “and so we are pleased to partner with them in this program.”